The chance for young researchers ?to develop and head their own research groups, precisely when their potential and research capacity is highest? is how Mariano Barbacid describes a new programme launched in Spain last February.

Barbacid is director of Madrid?s National Cancer Centre (CNIO) where four young researchers, each with at least 5 years? postdoctoral experience, will be offered the opportunity to build up their own research team. They will have salaries available for a postdoc and a research technician and will also receive start-up funding, plus help to cover consumables and lab expenses each year of the 5-year contract. Each group leader will have lab space for up to six people and his or her own office.

It all adds up to a cash injection of ?3.4 million over the period 2004-2008, 70% coming from the Madrid-based Caja Madrid Foundation. The scheme is the first of its kind in Spain. Whereas other programmes, such as Ramón y Cajal , also aim to give postdocs the opportunity to lead their own research team within a public research centre, they often have to apply for grants independently to fund their research.

The academic positions will fall within four main CNIO programmes, all related to cancer research or areas which may offer potential applications to this field, such as molecular pathology, biotechnology, and medicinal chemistry. The 5-year duration of the contract was estimated in the programme agreement as ?the minimal time required for a researcher to produce scientific results and to get his or her group consolidated in the Spanish scientific system.? The positions are currently advertised on the CNIO Web site and in major international journals as well as in Spanish and foreign research centres.

The programme is open to both Spanish and foreign applicants, and they are not required to have spent at least 18 months? postdoctoral experience outside the host institution in contrast to the Ramón y Cajal scheme. Applicants will be by a CNIO committee on the basis of their track record and a public presentation on their research activities.

The recruitment of young researchers who will develop their first research group is seen by the CNIO as a great investment for the future of the centre. ?We are following a policy of scientific quality which means betting on young people who have been brilliant during their postdoc stays abroad and who work on novel research issues? which complement existing CNIO research themes, says Maria Blasco, director of the Molecular Oncology Programme and winner of the 2002 ELSO career development award. ?For a lab head like myself,? adds Manel Esteller, group leader of the Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory, ?the arrival of these people [will be] a stimulus [for] our research and an always needed [supply of] fresh blood.?

Applicants need to be aware that the contracts won?t automatically translate into permanent posts once the 5 years are over. However, according to the programme agreement, "although the programme is not a preliminary step for the definitive incorporation in the CNIO, it can?t be ruled out that at some point the centre may make an offer to some of those hired on the basis of his or her value.? Esteller explains: ?After an established period of time, hired scientists must have attained an excellent research level and they will have to start to generate their own resources.?

To Jordi Petriz, a stem cell researcher who has recently set up his own research group at the Barcelona-based IDIBAPS Institute after 6 years? postdoctoral experience, the initiative sounds "ideal" for postdocs ready to make the move to independence. His take is that, unlike most Cajal scholars, they will be able to work from day one and produce results in the short-term. He feels however that "it's a pity" that the initiative is "so restricted" and would like to see it extended to research centres throughout the country. Indeed, according to Barbacid, the CNIO ?hopes that [their] initiative will encourage the launch of similar projects nationwide."

Petriz had only one reservation about the scheme. He hopes that "researchers will be able to head their teams and projects? with as much freedom as is stated in the agreement, instead of ?having to stick to what the boss says, as happens in the Cajal programme in some cases.?

Xavier Bosch is a science writer in Barcelona.